This is really not a great drama. The romances are boring, the hero is completely unattractive, the heroine is not quite too stupid to live, but only barely, and there is little to no character development. On the other hand, I keep watching because I have watched so much already that I feel I deserve to see the end, and because I am invested in the drama of what happens to the restaurant Little Bear, and what happens with Bai Hui, Zi Tian, and He Ma's culinary careers. Also, though the actress who plays Bai Hui only has three expressions, I am sort of won over by Bai Hui's endless optimism and complete lack of a clue. Plus, in her defense, the actor playing Zi Tian is even worse! I think he only has two expressions: teeny smile and angry stare.
My mom and dad also keep making occasionally funny, occasionally annoying comments while I watch:
DAD: What restaurant is that?
DAD: Where is it?
ME: ... I don't think we can actually go eat there.
DAD (disappointed): Oh.
MOM: Look at Zai Zai [Vic Zhou's nickname in Taiwan]!
DAD: His hair is so ugly!
MOM: It's better than when he was in F4 [Taiwan boy band].
DAD: What's wrong with all the guys' hair! I look at that and think the hygiene in the kitchen must be very bad. Who would want to eat there?
DAD: What? They're drinking red wine out of those glasses? What kind of a restaurant is that?
ME: They're using the bottle as a flower vase, Daddy. Look, they put flowers in it.
DAD (sniffs): Oh. (pause) That makes a very ugly vase. Also, why don't they have a tablecloth? They should have one. Well, not all good restaurants have to have one, but only if the table is very special or made of good wood.
MOM: Who would want to date a guy like that? I would never date a guy like that! He never says anything and you end up feeling stifled.
CHARACTER ON SCREEN (to aforementioned guy): I feel so stifled!
DAD: How come everyone is always either crying or yelling at each other?
MOM: Aiya, Daddy ah, you don't understand. That's just how young people talk these days.
DAD (sniffs): The actors we see never talk like that.
MOM: We're not watching the popular stuff. We are not young people now!
DAD: The older ones were better.
Spoilers make me fall off the sofa laughing
In an act of stupidity rivaling everything else in the show, Ke Xin is horribly sad when Zi Tian is mean to her and subsequently decides it will be a good idea to lie down in the parking lot of his apartment. For hours. In the pouring rain. As one does!
Then, there is Gao Qiao, Zi Tian's sometimes rival and the head chef of Amour. He is in love with Lu Chuan Lin, the daughter of the owner of Amour, and together, they treat the restaurant as their child (they said it, not me). Alas, her father disapproves of her marrying a chef, and in order to save Amour from being shut down, she agrees to an arranged marriage with some really rich business guy who graduated from Harvard. There is much sad music, and Gao Qiao decides he must cook their engagement meal himself, to pour all his love into it. Then, Chuan Lin decides to hand over his framed medal, but as she's crossing the street to meet him.... a car brakes and narrowly avoids hitting her! Everyone sighs in relief. Then she steps forward and gets run over and lands on her head!
Gao Qiao runs to her and cradles her, blood staining his chef outfit, and miraculously, all the cars manage to swerve around him even though he's sitting down, just so he has time to wail. He then spends all his time at the hospital, despite the fact that her father won't let him see her. This, I understand. However, I do not understand why he spends all his time as a motionless zombie; whenever people go visit him to try and get him to eat or something, he just sits there with his Urahara-esque hat and stubble and stares blankly into space.
At least, that's what I assume he's doing, though with the hat on, he could be rolling his eyes at them. But I feel that would not fit his image of a melancholy lover.
But! The best part is when Bai Hui convinces him to go back to Amour, as Chuan Lin wouldn't approve of him letting the child of their hard work die. Gao Qiao returns and listlessly stirs sauces. Everything seems to be going all right until another cook tastes his sauce and asks if he's added salt. Clearly, this is an emergency of epic proportions, because Gao Qiao tastes the sauce, then runs back to the the stove and unhygienically spoons assorted sauces in his still open mouth, then leans against the stove, sauces half-swallowed, panting. Also, he drools. And has a bit of a fit and starts yelling, "No! NO! How can this be?!" in the middle of the kitchen. He then runs out of the restaurant, limbs flailing, and stops in the middle of the street to fall to his knees and yell incoherently at the sky.
It turns out, the grief has caused him to lose his sense of taste! I nearly fell out of my chair at his performance, which almost rivals that of Idiot Son's in Romance of the Red Dust.
Spoilers and talk about gender and cooking
Thanks to talking to utsusemia at Wiscon about cooking and gender in dramas and manga, I have been thinking about this a lot. She talked a lot about the delineation between home cooking (female) and restaurant cooking (male), self-made food as an expression of female love (bentos made for boyfriends, bentos made for children, cooking for your husband), home cooking as a requirement for motherhood and romance, and overindulgence in sweets as a cute feminine trait.
The following isn't very coherent, but just stuff I found interesting. Also, I've never read Oishii Kankei, so I'm just going off hearsay.
- I find it very interesting that the gender roles in the drama seem slightly more blurred. There's the occasional fit of misogyny from Zi Tian and the acknowledgement that the chef's world is very male, but by and large, Bai Hui and He Ma go through roughly the same things at the same time. The exception to this is Gao Qiao and Duo Feng both saying that she ended up leaving Little Bear and joining Amour specifically because stuff wasn't going well with Zi Tian. The main reversals I can think of are that Zi Tian and He Ma both make home-cooked food, or homey food, in order to comfort women (Bai Hui, Ke Xin, Ke Xin's mom/Zi Tian's foster mom). It's still not home food per se, but the food they make for comfort is done outside of a restaurant kitchen, whereas Bai Hui we almost never see cooking outside of a restaurant.
Jin Dao Po Po we do see making home cooked meals and never in restaurants, but Jin Dao Po Po is very much an atypical motherly figure. She tends more toward yelling to train Bai Hui and He Ma, much like Zi Tian, and she almost as frequently makes people (male and female) cook for her as she cooks for other people. And though she's not a professional chef, all the professional chefs we see are afraid of her and do her bidding; she's their mentor.
- Ke Xin ends up losing her taste and oversalts everything. According to utsusemia, in the manga, I think a character did this to her husband as a way to show resentment of him not appreciating her and as a way to subconsciously kill him. In the drama, Ke Xin is resentful not of her husband, but of her mother, who is slowly succumbing to something like Alzheimer's and does not recognize her anymore. The focus of cooking as an expression of love here isn't maternal or wifely, but filial, and between mother and daughter, and it's an expression of love that's repeated over and over in the series: Zi Tian and Gao Qiao cook for Jin Dao (their mentor and Zi Tian's foster mom), Zi Tian cooks for Ke Xin's mom (his foster mom), He Ma cooks for his parents as a demonstration of his skill and as an expression of love. We get Jin Dao cooking for Zi Tian early on in order to make him eat and get over his childhood trauma, but we also get the manager's memories of cooking for his own daughter.
- I found it very interesting that when Xiao Qiang slips out to feed a poor family, she does so by taking food that He Ma has cooked and buying food from stores instead of cooking it herself. She's almost a mother-figure to the family, and she is shown at the stove, but she's stir-frying rice that He Ma has already prepared, not creating something from scratch. Also, there's an incidence in the manga in which Momoe (the Bai Hui analogue) livens up a dish for a kid by carving cute bento-esque animals—octopi hot dogs and etc.—and Bai Hui does the same. Only in this case, He Ma and Zi Tian also make cute bento-esque animals, making it an ungendered task, albeit a gendered idea.
- The drama also emphasizes the importance of cooking for other people: Zi Tian repeatedly returns to Little Bear because he misses the family-like atmosphere, and he's constantly telling He Ma and Bai Hui to pay attention to the customer. Bai Hui's lauded later in Amour for her attention to the customer while taking reservations, which read as a little gendered to me, but possibly also not, considering that it's a message conveyed to every one of the chefs. Cooking for the customer gives a dish that certain something; in an extreme contrast, when Gao Qiao's effectively lost the one he loves to a coma, he loses his sense of taste all together. It reminds me a great deal of the kekkai in X and how they can only be created if you're trying to protect someone you love.
Unsurprisingly, the message so far seems to be to cook from the heart, even in the restaurant industry. We see this not only with Bai Hui, but with Zi Tian's consistent inability to make it big, like Ke Xin wants him to. There's a repudiation of the role of chef as business person; Zi Tian makes fun of Gao Qiao and his interviews, just as he refuses to have anything to do with the marketing of Ke Xin's restaurant at all.
- On a final and completely inconclusive note, I like that Bai Hui's keen sense of taste, cultivated from her youth on (her father was a chef), is something that benefits her as a cooking professional. It seems to contrast with the cute image of female gluttony that often goes with physical and mental clumsiness, a la Miaka of Fushigi Yuugi and Usagi of Sailor Moon. Bai Hui loves eating everything, but instead of this only marking her as innocuous and cute (food and women acting as an association to comfort and love), it is something that gives her an edge professionally.